Road to failure
Jack Shenker’s assessment of the Corbyn movement (“Inside Left,” December) was thoughtful and in depth, raising many valid points that the Labour leader’s detractors—both inside and outside the party—would do well to take on board. However, I fear that some of the strengths to which he alludes will form the basis of the ultimate failure of “Corbynism” and Labour’s recent conversion to full-throated socialism.
While broad coalitions are always praised for their diversity of opinion, Labour’s uneasy alliance of the far left (including self-avowed communists) and pragmatic (and unhappy) centrists will, I suspect, fracture once the enforced unity of a general election campaign has passed. A yearning for, and fetishisation of, grassroots “bottom up” politics may find itself as misplaced in the 21st century as 1970s corporatism.
This is partly why I withdrew my support for Labour ahead of this election and reluctantly backed a Johnson premiership.
Tom Harris is a columnist for the Telegraph and former Scottish Labour politician
Shenker says much of value on the Corbyn project and its reinsertion of socialism into British political discourse—though nothing on the contribution made, I would suggest, by Ed Miliband. But did the Labour Party risk “Pasokification”? PASOK was indeed hollowed out, destroying with it the hopes of the post-Colonels generation. Its nemesis dates back to its own creator, Andreas Papandreou.
Early PASOK mobilised those wishing to heal the wounds of the Civil War, modernise Greece’s traditional social structures and looking for an independent future for their country. The country would be rid of the US “bases of death” and leave the European Economic Community. Neither of those promises was to be kept.
Late PASOK was pure clientilism, its laziness and corruption allowing the right-wing opposition to edge it from office in 2004.
It had the misfortune of being back in power in 2009 when the music stopped and 20 years of politicians’ plundering of the state and lying statistics led to the Greek financial crisis. With trust dashed in PASOK as a guardian of progressive change, its vote fell by two-thirds. And then, by Clegg-like clinging to office as minority partner in a conservative government, it lost two-thirds of the little support it retained.
Yes, PASOK at one time offered the vision of a different society that Corbyn does today. Its fate shows that, while winning the elections may be hard, at least as difficult may be ensuring that Corbynism survives contact with the fruits of office.
David Tonge, former Guardian and BBC stringer in Athens
The integrity of the vote
Steve Bloomfield has captured the threats to the freedom and fairness of our elections (“What happens if we stop trusting elections?” December). Our Victorian electoral rules need updating to guarantee the integrity of the vote and restore public faith in democratic processes.
But these changes alone are not enough to combat the apathy that has been slowly eroding trust in our institutions and democracy. The broken Westminster model of politics has led ordinary citizens to feel increasingly powerless and distant from where decisions are made.
A wholesale renewal is more urgent than ever, beginning with a democratically-elected House of Lords and more deliberative democratic processes in local government. Then we can begin to create a new kind of politics, where power is dispersed across institutions and citizens have a genuine say.
Michela Palese, Electoral Reform Society
In his critique of AV Dicey (“Putting parliament in its place,” December), David Allen Green asserts that parliament does not entirely dominate our constitutional arrangements and perhaps never really did. This is true, in a sense.
But he also asserts that parliament recently twice had to be saved from its own impotence by Gina Miller and the Supreme Court. Here he, like the Court, misunderstands parliament’s place in the political constitution.
The Court’s intervention in the first Miller case in 2017 turned on the false premise that important decisions must be made by way of Act of Parliament. In the secondMiller case in September 2019, the Court adopted an inflated, ahistorical idea of parliamentary sovereignty that would seem to require parliament to be in (almost) continual session. Both judgments distort the constitution by judicialising political questions that should properly have been left to parliamentarians.
The irony is that the Supreme Court seems to make the same type of mistake that Green ascribes to Dicey—failing to put parliament in its proper constitutional place.
Richard Ekins, University of Oxford and Policy Exchange’s Judicial Power Project
The final word?
Colin McGinn says he never dismissed my work as “neuroscience cheerleading” (“Out of Mind” and “Letters,” December).
We can all tell when work is being dismissed. In a (long) review of Neurophilosophy in 1987 McGinn called it “a 500-page dithyramb to the brain sciences” with an “excess of evangelism” and “rhetoric masquerading as argument.”
Being a country bumpkin, I had to look up “dithyramb”: 1. A frenzied, impassioned choric hymn and dance of ancient Greece in honour of Dionysus. 2. An irregular poetic expression suggestive of the ancient Greek dithyramb. 3. A wildly enthusiastic speech or piece of writing. He also complained about “irrelevant technical detail,” as if he is qualified to know!
But perhaps all this is digging up old graves. What does appeal to many of us who want to understand the brain are new discoveries. For example, motor signals seem to be important everywhere in cortex, even in early visual cortex and early auditory cortex.
Perception is not, it seems, as dissociable from motor control as philosophers once expected. So what are these motor signals doing? This puzzle is not easily dismissed as a “dithyramb.”
Patricia Churchland, philosopher
Daniel Howden (“The Returnees,” December) is right to highlight the problems with Europe’s grand plan to support migrants returned to Africa with entrepreneurship projects. But it is not just returnees.
In an attempt to deter people from leaving their home countries in the first place, European governments have spent billions since 2015 on tackling what they describe as the “root causes of migration.”
The problem is that those causes—climate change, global inequality, human rights violations—are not easily solved with a digital skills programme here or a microloan there. As with Assisted Voluntary Return programmes, the rhetoric rarely matches reality.
Jessica Abrahams, deputy editor, Devex
States of change
Ann Pettifor approvingly cites Mariana Mazzucato as demonstrating that the internet, GPS and voice recognition were revolutionary assets with completely uncertain returns effectively developed by the state (“If you broke the economy, you won’t fix it,” November).
While many of us on the centre-left would instinctively nod along to such an observation as proof of the good which the state can achieve, are there not two glaring (and somewhat ironic) omissions in this analysis?
First, the state which developed these particular technologies (principally, the US) managed to fund such endeavours with the tax revenues from a successful capitalist economy. Second, far from having completely uncertain returns, these technologies have clear military applications—a consequence of their progenitor’s desire to be the pre-eminent superpower.
Chris Calland, London
Anthony Teasdale rightly suggests Charles Moore’s superb third volume does not do justice to the European dimension of Thatcher’s downfall (“Into the vortex,” December).
But what both Teasdale and Moore miss is that the crisis over the European Council decision in October 1990 to launch negotiations for a single currency was completely unnecessary, born of what Nigel Lawson described as Thatcher’s “recklessness.”
In early 1990 John Major and Douglas Hurd advised that the UK could not on its own stop Monetary Union; and that the best course was to concentrate on securing complete control over whether and if so when to join the single currency (the solution that eventually found its way into the Maastricht Treaty under Major). The PM turned this advice down flat.
But regardless of the resulting diplomatic crunch in Rome, senior cabinet colleagues would have known what had passed long before and drawn their own conclusions about their prime minister. The rest is history.
David Hannay, UK permanent representative to the European Community, 1985-1990
Your policy report (November) asserted that mental health services should have parity of esteem with physical health services. I strongly agree with that.
Unfortunately, in this wicked world, esteem is measurable in starkly financial terms. Although mental health disorders account for 21 per cent of the overall disease burden, the proportion that English Clinical Commissioning Groups spend on these is just under 14 per cent of their budgets.
CCGs should be mandated to increase the proportion by a fixed minimum percentage every year—say 0.5 per cent—until a proportion of, say, 20 per cent had been achieved. This would be hard, given the financial pressure on all health services, but fair, given our historic habit of egregious underfunding of mental health services.
Philip Timms, National Psychosis Unit
I share Brenda Hale’s dinner guest wishlist (“Brief Encounter, December), and would love to have a conversation with Millicent Fawcett. But I want to go back to one particular conversation which took place in the early 1860s between Millicent Fawcett, her sister Elizabeth Garrett and their friend Emily Davies.
They were reportedly sitting round the fire at the Garrett home in Aldeburgh one night deciding how they would further the women’s cause. Emily said “Well it is clear enough what is to be done; you, Elizabeth, must open the medical profession to women (which of course she did), I must see about higher education (which of course she did, including founding Girton College Cambridge) and as the vote will follow after the other two, Milly here is younger than we are, and must attend to that.” As of course, she did. What amazing women!
Sam Smethers, Chief Executive, Fawcett Society
I am certain that Hale’s judicial skills are remarkable but there is no excuse for not reading Proust.
To add an encouraging note, one of our Supreme Court justices in the US, Stephen Breyer, said in an interview that reading great writers, and Proust specifically, provides just what justices most need. A “crucial quality in a judge,” he said, is the ability to “project himself into the lives of others, lives that have nothing in common with his own, even lives in completely different eras or cultures.” Proust helped him develop “this ability to envision the practical consequences on one’s contemporaries of a law or a legal decision.”
I am sure Hale has these abilities in spades. But if she needs an excuse to curl up with one of the greatest writers of all, I hope I have provided her with one.William C Carter, biographer of Marcel Proust
Thank you for Ray Monk’s excellent essay on RG Collingwood (“The man who wasn’t there,” October). I’m sure Monk is right to suggest that if Collingwood had lived a decent span, instead of dying in 1943 at the age of 53, British philosophy might not have sunk into its long torpor. At the very least, as Monk notes, Collingwood’s polyglot cosmopolitanism could have prevented the philosophical establishment from following Gilbert Ryle into a proto-Brexity distrust of continental Europeans.
But the case for the relevance of Collingwood can be taken further. In 1938, when he knew he didn’t have long to live, Collingwood wrote the brief autobiography which is not only an engaging account of a life dedicated to thinking, but also a passionate appeal for “gloves-off philosophising” in defence of democracy. Collingwood explained that he was an old-fashioned liberal, for whom democracy was not just a “form of government” but a “school of political experience.”
All citizens have a democratic “duty of voting,” he said, but philosophers have an additional democratic duty—not a duty to tell their fellow voters what to believe, but to alert them to fake certainties peddled by vote-hungry politicians. In particular, philosophers needed to call out the treachery of those newspapers for which, as Collingwood put it, “the word news lost its old meaning of facts which a reader ought to know if he was to vote intelligently, and acquired the new meaning of facts, or fictions, which it might amuse him to read.”
Above all Collingwood railed against the insidious fascism of the Daily Mail, which was bent on infantilising the reader by getting them to “think of the news not as the situation in which he was to act, but as a mere spectacle for idle moments.” A trenchant politico-philosophical intervention, it seems to me, not just for Collingwood’s time, but for ours.
Jonathan Rée, philosopher